Brown takes lesser option with Inferno

This book cover image released by Doubleday shows
This book cover image released by Doubleday shows "Inferno," by Dan Brown. The latest book by Brown, the author of "The Davinci Code," will be released on May 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Doubleday)

INFERNO

By Dan Brown

Doubleday, $29.95; 463 pp.

Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons and The Lost Symbol, would have us believe, like Chicken Little, that the sky is falling. Maybe it will, perhaps even soon, but not immediately, for Brown grants us the time to purchase his latest book, Inferno, whether we get around to reading it or not.

The apocalypse Brown predicts arises from the depredations inflicted upon the world and its resources by mankind’s burgeoning masses, with the inevitable result that civilization will collapse, a massive die-off to follow. Through the simple demonstration that human population increases exponentially while agricultural production increases arithmetically, Thomas Robert Malthus famously argued something similar more than a hundred years ago. For Brown, the proposition then was merely “interesting”; today the adjective should be “dire.”

The possibility of this apocalypse threatens to reverse morality. Should the World Health Organization (WHO) be condemned for saving and prolonging lives and neo-eugenicists eager for what amounts to “ethnic cleansing at the genetic level,” be lauded? The question is presented in this form: “Would you kill half the population today in order to save our species from extinction (tomorrow)?”

After all, nature itself intervened at the height of the Medieval Warm Period, when bountiful harvests had led to an unsustainable increase in the European population. During the early 1300s, storms and a precipitous drop in average temperatures led to crop failures, and behind them stalked plague in the form of Black Death.

Within less than a century, the population of Europe had diminished by a third and the medieval patterns of feudalism and manorialism were tottering. The way was then clear for the Renaissance and all its glories.

Here Brown introduces Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321), who in the first third of his The Divine Comedy depicts the suffering of the damned. Similar miseries would afflict mankind during the die-off.

Weaving the possibilities of a world facing pestilence, war, famine and death with Dante’s depiction of Hell would have made a fascinating book. Brown has instead written a mediocre thriller. Once again, Harvard Art Historian and Symbologist, the impeccably dressed Robert Langdon — Harris Tweed and Somerset loafers — joins up with his latest female accomplice, Sienna Brooks — “tall and lissome” — to save the world after derring-do in Florence, Venice, and Istanbul.

If only it were so easy.